One of the most beautiful royal palaces in the world, the Reggia is a masterpiece of harmonious architecture and decorative arts. (If you experience déjà vu during your visit, it may be because the Reggia was used as a location for Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace).
When King Carlo III Bourbon decided to leave Naples which he considered too open to attacks from the sea, he asked his architect Luigi Vanvitelli to build him a palace that could rival the courts of Paris, London, and Madrid. Vanvitelli dedicated the last 20 years of his life to the construction, for which he used the best materials and workmanship available in the country. The Reggia was finally finished 1 year after the architect's death in 1774, but its interior was not fully completed until 1847. The palace is grandiose, measuring over 45,000 sq. m (484,376 sq. ft.), and divided into four wings, each surrounding a separate courtyard.
A visit starts in the very scenic main gallery, where the view stretches all the way to the end of the park and the majestic waterfall. You then climb the splendid main staircase to a magnificent octagonal vestibule, all decorated with precious marble in various colors. The scale of it is almost stupefying: There are 116 stairs, flanked by niches containing sculptures that allude to the grandeur of the kingdom. We love the two sculpted lions by Pietro Solari and Paolo Persico, which are among the most familiar symbols of the Reggia.
The Palatine Chapel opens onto the vestibule. Like everything else at the Reggia, it has imposing dimensions (37m/120 ft. long). Inside, over the entrance, you will see the royal box from which the king and queen observed services, while on the main altar you can see the wood model of the ciborium that was never built. Some of the 13 columns defining the gallery still show the damage from the 1943 bombings. (Note: The chapel was closed for restoration when this guide was published.) Also opening onto the vestibule, to the left of the main staircase, are the Royal Apartments. The decorations in the appartamento nuovo ("new" apartment) date from the early 19th century, with stuccoes, bas-reliefs, and frescoes. Of the several halls, we like the Sala di Marte, celebrating military virtues through nine bas-reliefs by Valerio Villareale and a large ceiling fresco by Antonio Galliano depicting mythological scenes from Virgil's Iliad. Nearby is the Throne Room, which was inaugurated in 1845; it dazzles with gild stucco and 46 medallions depicting all the kings of Naples, from the Norman Roger I to Ferdinand II.
The visit continues through the so-called appartamento vecchio ("old" apartment), inaugurated by Ferdinando IV and his wife Maria Carolina of Austria in 1780. Beautifully furnished and decorated with frescoes, these were the private rooms of the queen and king. First come the "conversation rooms," decorated according to seasonal themes by Antonio Dominici (Primavera and Autunno, or spring and fall) and Fedele Fischetti (Estate and Inverno -- summer and winter). Spring and summer make up the receiving room and sitting room, respectively, while fall is the dining room, and winter is the smoking room. After these come the bedroom, the king's study, and the queen's parlor. Our favorite furnishings here are the magnificent Murano glass chandeliers and the carved chairs and sofas, masterpieces of neoclassical Italian furniture by Nicola and Pietro Di Fiore. The paintings are by Jacob Philipp Hackert, a court painter who was kept very busy by the Bourbons. Goethe called him an "inveterate hard worker," who not only painted prolifically but gave drawing lessons to the royal children and delivered lectures. We particularly like his scenes of the kingdom's harbors in the receiving room, as well as the depictions of royal sites in the king's study. Finally, you'll come to the three rooms of the library -- notice the frescoes in the third room by Friederich Heinrich Függer, said to contain hidden Masonic meanings, a subject which deeply interested the queen -- and to an oval hall which contains the magnificent presepe reale (royal manger scene).
Through a side door from the octagonal vestibule near the main staircase, you can access the permanent exhibit Terrae Motus, composed of over 70 pieces by Italian and foreign contemporary artists -- there is even a piece by Andy Warhol and one by Keith Haring -- in reaction to the terrible earthquake that shook Campania in 1980.
Back on the ground floor at the end of the main gallery, you come out onto the Reggia's magnificent park. Covering about 120 hectares (296 acres), it is not only enormous, but simply the most celebrated of Italian gardens in the world. The park stretches from the palace to the nearby hills along a central path 3.2km (2 miles) long, graced by a number of fountains, pools, and gardens. A majestic waterfall created by Luigi Vanvitelli cascades from the hills at the end of the park. To fulfill the needs of the palace, he designed an aqueduct to carry water all the way from Monte Taburno, 40km (25 miles) away. The waterfall was the point of arrival of the aqueduct -- which he named Caroline Acqueduct after the queen. Today, the water for the fountains is recirculated thanks to pumps, while the aqueduct feeds the town's supply.
Among the fountains depicting mythical events, the most spectacular is the Fountain of Eolus, a large construction of grottoes and figures representing the palace of the wind god. Above it and up the hill is a system of three fountains feeding into each other, Fountain of Ceres, Fountain of Venus and Adonis, and Fountain of Diana and Atteon. This last is the highest, and we recommend climbing up to it for the superb view. To the right of this last fountain is the entrance to the English Garden, created for Queen Maria Carolina di Borbone by the son of the architect, Carlo Vanvitelli. The Italian architect designed the garden while English botanist and landscape artist Andrea Graefer, created the plant arrangements. Covering over 30 hectares (74 acres), it is a perfect romantic realization, with a lake, a spring, and a small temple, all decorated with ancient Roman statues taken from the ruins of Pompeii. The queen also indulged her infatuation with the Masons here, and the garden is full of hidden symbols and esoteric references. It is accessible only by guided tour.
We recommend taking the horse-carriage tour, which is relatively short, but very romantic. Don't expect it to take you all the way to the top, as the climb is too steep for the horses; the carriages U-turn by the Fountain of Eolus. Another interesting tour is offered on weekend nights June through October. Called Percorsi di Luce nella Reggia (Paths of Light in the Reggia) (tel. 0823-4480840 or 0823-462078; www.percorsidiluce.it), it uses music, visual, and performing arts to help the visitor discover the Reggia, the famous gardens, and the kings that inhabited it. The tours are narrated by art historians and accompanied by light effects, 18th-century music, short performances, and multimedia presentations. Started in 2003, this event is scheduled only a year at a time, and cancellation is always threatened due to lack of funds. Make reservations well in advance (admission is 18€/$25/£13; children 5 and under free). Regular guided tours with professional art historians are offered daily during opening hours by Arethusa (tel. 0823-448084; www.arethusa.net); tours are 3.60€ ($5/£2.50) for the 1 1/2-hour visit.
Note: A visit to the palace (and even more so the park) involves extensive walking. The palace is wheelchair accessible through a private elevator in back of the ticket booth; calling in advance is best, but you can also inquire upon arrival. A shuttle bus is provided between the palace to the Fountain of Diane and the entrance of the English Gardens; pay and sign up for the bus at the ticket booth.
You will find a cafeteria inside the Reggia, at the end of the main gallery just before the exit to the gardens; it is open nonstop during visiting hours. In summer, you'll find a temporary snack bar at the entrance to the English Gardens. However, it is a good idea to carry your own water if you are planning a lengthy exploration of the park.